NIKOLINA ILIC | MAR 4, 2022
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) the leading non-genetic developmental disability in Australia, caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
In some cases the symptoms of FASD often go overlooked and undiagnosed – a recent study of almost 1,500 Australian women aged 18-44 years found that more than half (51 percent) of women surveyed were not aware that alcohol use could cause harm even in the first few weeks after conception – leaving those who have FASD unsupported in school environments and beyond.
“The effects of this condition are life long,” explains Professor Elizabeth Elliott, University of Sydney. “So even though it is often diagnosed in children, as those children grow up, if they have problems with understanding and expressing their feelings, if they’ve got poor impulse control, they often drop our of school, they often get in trouble with the legal system, and they often have poor self esteem. Many of them cannot live and work independantly, so it’s really important to understand that this is a life-long problem.”
To find out more, we spoke to three mothers who have experienced FASD, and hear their stories.
– Mother of a child with FASD
I was physically dependent upon alcohol when I fell pregnant after self-medicating on, amongst other trauma, the devastating news that without IVF, I could not conceive. That sad irony is not lost on me. When my son received his official diagnosis of FASD (he was first diagnosed with autism), it solidified what deep down, I already knew and that was very confronting. The guilt was crippling however it was also a moment of great relief as the early interventions and accommodations my son desperately needed became available to him. He had his correct diagnosis.
My child’s symptoms include difficulty with emotional regulation, extreme anxiety, speech issues, sensory issues and both academic and social challenges at school. Especially in mathematics and handwriting. These symptoms present as behaviours such as yelling, throwing things and shutting down. He has an NDIS plan which allows for him to attend speech therapy, occupational therapy and psychology. This has helped him immeasurably. His therapists also communicate with his school and they have been wonderful with implementing any and all accommodations suggested to ensure school is a positive place. Fidget and sensory items help with anxiety.
I have also learned and adapted to my son’s world rather than expecting him to fit our rigid world. He simply cannot do that. Rather than driving to team sports, we are driving to therapy appointments but we still make it a lot of fun.
My advice is for women wanting to conceive and given that around one third of pregnancies are unplanned, any women where potentially falling pregnant is a possibility. FASD is an irreversible lifelong brain based disability which is invisible from the outside in the vast majority of children and it’s 100% preventable. It can and does occur at low level alcohol consumption and when women have stopped drinking the second they found out they were pregnant. There is now no doubt that there is no safe limit of alcohol consumption at any time during pregnancy. Alcohol is a teratogen and crosses the placenta causing damage to the unborn baby’s brain and organ development. Prevention is key however I would be remiss not to address any women who may already have consumed alcohol during pregnancy and are worried about their child. The correct diagnosis is always the best diagnosis and women need not feel shame or blame in disclosing alcohol use during their pregnancy in order to get help for their children. Any women who are physically dependant on alcohol also need not feel shame in disclosing this as there is help and support available. My advice for health professionals, please show understanding and compassion. No mother intentionally sets out to harm her unborn child.
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not
necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ‘FASD Prevention Conversation, A Shared Responsibility Project’, its stakeholders, and/or funders.